Once upon a time, picking an Australian limited-overs team was easy. You could drop a captain like Mark Taylor or Steve Waugh because there was a rank of replacements waiting for that spot. Your all-rounder could be Andrew Symonds or Ian Harvey or Shane Lee. Bat Michael Bevan at five or at six? Put your wicketkeeper up to open? Test spearhead like Glenn McGrath or white-ball operator like Nathan Bracken? It didn’t really matter. Whatever you did, Australia would mostly win.
That was in 50-over cricket. Since the third format arrived, condensed to 20, Australia’s selectors have stared at it with brows furrowed in puzzlement, like Brendan Fraser’s time-travelling Cro-Magnon man trying to comprehend toothpaste. Most often, the approach has more or less been to pick the Test pace attack, one leg-spinner, and the most prolific Big Bash run-scorers, with a couple of hierarchy picks of Test batters who don’t have time to play domestic short stuff. We’ll see it again at this year’s T20 World Cup.
It can work: loading up with quality batting will win some games when a player has a day out. But success in T20 cricket is about repeatability, with enough options to cover for individual failures. On average across a tournament Australia is hurt by a lack of specialisation. Picking the biggest scorers means picking players who open the batting domestically, and some Australian teams have been packed with openers from one to seven.
Despite the way it seems, the shortest format is not as simple as see ball, hit ball. Especially in UAE conditions, with slow pitches offering help to spinners while withholding it for shots, the jobs are different. Lots of players can succeed as openers, with time to settle before going after pace bowling through the first six overs, a new ball coming faster off the bat, and plenty of aerial options thanks to fielding restrictions allowing two players on the boundary. Far more difficult is coming in with 30 balls remaining, or 10, or fewer, facing spin or cutters with an ageing ball and with five fielders on the fence, while the job required is to score quickly without wasting a delivery.
In this sort of context, a top-three player scoring 60 from 40 balls is less valuable than a No 7 scoring 15 from four. The former is easier for the other team to match, and the difference between teams can be who uses the more difficult scoring phases to best effect. The latter is the kind of player that, despite years of trying, Australia has not been able to develop since Mike Hussey gave the game away.
The only strategic batting picks in the likely Australian XI to take on South Africa on Saturday have been found this year by accident. After Australia’s big names declined a Caribbean tour in July, Mitchell Marsh was popped in at No 3 and produced an outstandingly consistent run. Glenn Maxwell’s best role, meanwhile, was worked out by Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL. Rather than having a position in the order, he had a position in the innings: coming in as soon as possible after six overs to attack that phase’s slow bowling. Over the tournament he hit twice as many sixes against spin as anyone, scoring a string of fifties to take his team into the finals. Presuming he gets the same job for Australia, that will mostly seem him batting at four behind Marsh.
The rest of the order suggests more of an element of hope than design. David Warner is an IPL great: fifth all time for runs, behind four local legends who have all played more matches with lower averages and strike rates. But he’s out of nick and ended the recent season dropped by Sunrisers Hyderabad. Aaron Finch is coming off a knee injury with little cricket behind him. Those two will open. Steve Smith will presumably be at five, but has a relatively slow scoring pace in T20 cricket. After that might be Marcus Stoinis and Matthew Wade, two players with wonderful records at the top of the order against pace, and horrible records in the middle against spin.
The only variations might be if Josh Inglis comes in as a wildcard wicketkeeper in place of Wade, given he does have some late-innings credentials, or if spinning all-rounder Ashton Agar bats at seven to play five bowlers with a keeper in the top six. But more likely Agar will be at eight to form a duo with Adam Zampa, while two of Patrick Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc will be the pace attack supplemented by Marsh and Stoinis.
It has been five years since the last T20 World Cup. The world’s best teams have spent it carefully honing their approach to the format. It’s hard to draw the impression that Australia’s management has done the same. Returning to the cinema classic Encino Man, this team is like the caveman’s attempts at modern fashion: outfits made of pieces that are fine on their own, but put together in a way that just doesn’t fit. Across a tournament, the configuration won’t offer reliable repeatability. If it works, it will be down to Australia squeezing the absolute best from every player. But as Brendan Fraser knows, it’s not that easy to wheeze the juice.